I think of the many hard lessons I have learned through the years.
About feeling valued.
About feeling seen.
About what I needed to change not just as the teacher, but also as the adult in charge of the learning experience we create, day in, day out.
So many learned not because I finally realized something, but instead because the kids I have taught had a way to teach me. Had a way to speak up when they needed to. Had a way to feel heard, even when their words meant I needed to change. How it takes such little time to provide kids with the tools they need to speak up, to be heard, to be a full member of the community we are building. It takes a few questions, an open mind and only a few minutes.
In fact, if I ever had to re-name this blog anything, it would be the lessons the children taught me. The many things they have shared throughout their years as we have strived for a better way of learning, of reading, of being a community of people who already are impacting the world beyodn the walls of school.
And so this week, i will once again ask a few simple yet large questions.
Do you feel respected in this room?
Do you respect others in this room?
What can I do more for you?
What should I do less of?
What do you wish I would notice?
And I will remind them all, once again, that this is their chance to influence how I teach and how we learn. That I have thick skin but to also offer up ideas when they can, not just criticism, however, that criticism is also welcomed because I can’t fix anything I don’t know isn’t working. That this stays between us unless I have their permission to share. That I am grateful for their truths so that I can grow. So that we can grow.
And that this is the first reflection of many to come. That this is only the beginning, because for some I haven’t earned their trust, for some they are not ready to tell me how they really feel, and I respect that as well. But I will still ask because even just asking is a step toward a stronger learning experience. A step toward a more solid us.
We are about six weeks into the year, and it is time for me to learn more lessons.
One of the ideas mentioned in the book briefly was the idea of using writing circles, think lit circles but for writing, with students in order for them to gain a more long-term writing community, as well as a more developed relationship to their own role as writers. I loved the idea immediately and wanted to make it work for our kids., as having my own writing circle of trusted peers has helped me tremendously whenever I write books.
To start us off for the year, we discussed positive and negative aspects of writing by brainstorming. The question was based off of the work we have done with reading and followed the same format, rather than post-its, though, they did it in their writer’s notebook on a t-chart and then created a group response at their table. We then discussed as a class and created our writing rights together. These now hang in our room as a reminder of the type of writing experiences we would like to have.
Then I wanted to introduce the concept of writing circles to students using something I knew they were familiar with; lit cirlces. How are writing circles like literature circles? I showed my students this side-by-side comparison to help them get thinking about the potential process and benefits waiting for them.
So first, what are the components of our writing circles?
Students choose peers to be in their writing circle – 3 to 4 people through an interview.
They write together, physically, as well as at times, actually in the same project.
They can write on the same topic but in different formats.
They share their work, discuss and encourage each other.
They serve as editors for each other providing critical and constructive feedback.
They serve as long-term writing partners and will, hopefully, develop further skills from each other, as well as develop a more natural writing relationship.
They build accountability toward the group and the group is an immediate circle to turn to for help.
The first step toward establishing their writing circles was to reflect on their own writing identity once more – see the screenshot below. This was a continuation of the discussions we have had where they have reflected on how writing intersect with them as human beings, that started with their writing survey for the year.
After they had reflected, they then interviewed seven other people in order to hear more about their writing identity. This was on the same sheet and looked like this – very similar on purpose. To see the full survey, go here.
Why seven? I wanted them go beyond their friend zone and knew that for some that would take a few people. Once they had interviewed seven people, I then asked them to reflect on the following questions.
Looking at other people’s habits, who may strengthen your skills as a writer? Note, these are people who have DIFFERENT strengths than you.
Looking at other people’s habits, who may not be a good fit for you because you share the same areas of growth or skills.
Looking at other people’s habits, who may you help grow as a writer? Compare your marked areas of strength to theirs.
Choose only three peers who you think may be a good fit and who will help you grow as a writer. Go outside of your comfort zone if it will help you grow.
If you want, you can add peers who you do not think will be a good fit, this is only for strong reasons, not to list all of the people you don’t want to be with.
Once they had reflected, they handed the surveys in to me and the puzzle began. I told them I would try my best to have at least one “wished for” peer in their group but also knew that some kids may benefit from other peers than the ones they selected.
The following day, their writing circles were revealed. We told them it would be a test run to see how they did with each other and that we would reassess as needed. While almost all groups worked out beautifully right away, a few needed minor tweaks which we handled within a day or two.
After the reveal, we asked them to find a designated spot that would always be their meeting spot. While many chose great spots, a few didn’t, and after a few days we did create new spots for some groups that allowed them to work better together. The main culprit was having space to speak to one another and space to have their materials and with 29 sudents it can get a bit tricky. Then inspired by Tricia Ebarvia’s Jenga games to start off the year, we had them play Jenga with each other in order to get to know each other. Here are her original questions, here are the questions we ended up using, some new, many of them hers. I had bought 5 Jenga games and split them into 9 games with 30 tiles each and it worked out perfectly. not only did it allow us to see how the circles would function as a group, but they also got a chance to get to know each other more. Thank you so much, Tricia for sharing all of your work around this!
Then, it was time to actually write something. And so we have been. We have been doing small prompts that they have shared with each other, they have read personal essays and memoirs and discussed them, they have written 6 word memoir, and most importantly they have shared their beginning writing with each other. As the students just submitted their first draft of a memoir or a personal essay, upcoming usage of their writing circle will be:
Navigate the feedback we have left – what does it really mean? Where do they need to start?
Be peer editors – we will be working on specific revision skills in order to help them edit each other’s work better as this is not a skill they are ready to just take on. As I model my own revisions, they will be doing the revision work on each other’s.
Search for “simple” mistakes such as conventions of writing that their own eyes may miss because it is too familiar with the writing.
Challenge them in their writing, hold them accountable to create better writing than what they started with.
Assess each other’s writing using the rubric and comparing it to their own self-assessment.
On Monday, as we start a wonky week where the only academic day we have together is Monday, they will write a group story as we have been discussing components of great stories. They will then act it out. So far, having this built in writing community has benefitted us in a few way:
They already know who to be with when they are writing and since they are mostly peers they have chosen there is a more natural collaboration happening.
They have each other to ask when they are stuck, when they are fleshing out ideas, as well as when they think they are done but need someone else to look at it.
They don’t have to wait for the teachers to look at their writing, they can go to each other first and then when their time is for a conference with me, they can come right up rather than waste time.
The students really seem to like it, no groans or moans when we ask them to get with their writing circles.
There is a lot more talk surrounding their writing, which was the main goal. We wanted to work on the social aspect of writing and to offer the kids a way to know that they are not alone when they feel burdened by writing.
I will continue to share the work of these writing circles as they will be a year-long endeavor, but wanted to share this for now. If you have any questions, please ask, I am just learning myself.
We continue to get to know each other slowly. Dancing around each other in this forced community which we hope to make our own. Feeling each other out as we wonder where in each other’s legacies we will fit. Will we matter or will we be a forgotten chapter? Simply a footnote in a story that spans a lifetime.
Four weeks into a new school year and I keep thinking how I am already a much better teacher than I was when I started because of the truths these kids, my new students, are offering up. How though they barely know me, and yet in their stories enable us to start havinge these moments together that become our narrative as we weave our pasts together in order to create our future. At least for a little bit.
And I remind myself to slow down.
And I remind myself to pay attention.
And I remind myself to pick up my pen and take notice.
To start the conversations.
To listen fully.
To continue to search for connections, for the stories that pass easily in order to get to know them more.
To give hugs freely and feedback carefully.
To take a breath.
To take a moment.
To feel the power that the adult in the room inevitably holds even when we think we don’t.
And I am reminded of how writing identity carries so many emotions when a child bursts into tears in front of me not sure how to take my words surrounding their writing. Because we don’t know each other that well, not yet.
And I am reminded of how quiet it can be when a child tells me a part of themselves that they weren’t quite ready to share but shared it anyway and I hope I earned their trust a little more. Because they don’t know what I will do with the stories of their life, not yet.
And I am reminded of how much our students notice when they ask if I will do that thing for them that I did for that other kid, and was that a tradition and if not, it should be. That they don’t know that I will pretty much go along with most new traditions because that’s just who I am, not yet.
And I am reminded of the bonds we created the year before when the big 8th graders shout “Hey, Mrs. Ripp!” as they pass my room and sometimes sneak in for a hug or a book. And I wonder if any of the ones I get to teach now will even say hello next year.
Because these moments, the small moments that we take, the ones that we make through our conferring, through our greetings, through our questions and our listening. Through our shared read alouds, through our discussion, through our music playlists, through our stories. Those moments become the foundation for the trust that I hope these kids will place in me as I try to guide them down a path of learning.
Because what I am reminded of tonight as our daughter tells me that her day was great, as usual, but that there were not enough hugs, is that we have only just begun. That there should always be time for the hugs. For the moments. For the connections. And yet the pressure to cover the content, to get through the material, to offer up all of the opportunities to learn urges us on at a breakneck pace but that the only thing we will accomplish from caving to the pressure is relationships left behind.
So I pause once more. Plan accordingly and search for the moments that will tie us all together.
We continue to work on developing our writing communities, slowly settling into what it means to write together, to be writers, and to feel free to write. We have written directions, we have discussed the rules of writing, we have read great writing, and we have set up our writing circles. All this work is centered in identity. All this work is centered in learning who each other are and developing a feeling of safety and community as we grow into this year together.
Now we inch closer to writing personal essays on topics centered on our own lives and so we used the 6-word memoirs. This ingenious little foray into writing has a long history. A great place to read more about them can be found here. They are exactly what they sound like; 6 word stories about our lives.
I introduced them by showing them examples of other 6-word memoirs, some serious, some not so much. I showed my own example…
Then we discussed the perimeters of the challenge: Exactly 6 words, it cannot be a list of adjectives, should reveal some part of your life that you feel comfortable with.
Then the kids brainstormed for a bit it their writers’ notebooks, playing around with sentences, words, and punctuation.
When they felt satisfied with their chosen words, they had someone spell check their final sentence. A few spelling errors were missed, which happens.
Then they illustrated them using these free blank face printables. I printed one out and drew a line down the middle, then made enough copies with directions on this handout. One side was for them to illustrate either as a collage or as an abstract image of of their words. The other side was for their words. I told the kids that they would be displayed so to put their names on the back for privacy unless they wanted it to be known that they made it.
We listened to music. Kids played with words, drew, and then handed them in. I couldn’t believe the care many took. While certainly there were many that spoke of sports, dogs, and other seemingly small-ish parts of their lives, every single one spoke of something they found important or showed a sliver of their personality.
A small lesson that showed so much about their identity once again. See for yourself, how they turned out.
We are two weeks into the year and slowly the routines are starting to shape up. We know each other just a little. Our community is growing. The incredible inquisitive and funny nature of our 7th graders is coming out more and more. And every day we start the same way; twenty minutes at least of independent reading. Twenty minutes to “Settle in, settle down, and get reading.” Twenty minutes where I get to book shop with kids, check in on their day, and also do initial reading conferences with the kids as we start to get to know each other more. After all, how am I supposed to help them grow as readers if I don’t know them as readers, as people?
Our first reading conferences are simple yet effective as we start this journey together. All it takes is a few things: our reader survey, their goal setting as it ties in with their 7th-grade reading challenge, my note taking sheet, my home information sheet and time. Hmm, maybe that sounds complicated, but it is not. What these different things do is allow me to slowly gather information on the students and open up conversation.
The reading survey helps me get insight into their reading habits and emotions tied in with reading. They do this within the first few days of school.
The home sheet was used during our ready-set-go conferences prior to school starting but I also use it throughout the year to fill in more information. (The pronoun question/answer is an optional question from a different survey).
And my note-taking sheet, a constant work in progress, gives me a place to keep all of my information, in order to have a place to remember our conversations by.
Every class has its own binder where the information is placed alphabetically, and that’s how I start; alphabetically and call up two or three students every day during their reading time.
A few easy questions start us off: When we meet would you prefer to come to me or me come to you? (Many prefer the relative privacy of coming to me). Which book are you reading, how did you choose that one, how would you rank it on a scale from 1 to 10?
Then we move into their reading goal. Questions I ask are: What is your goal, how come you set that, and tell me more about your reading life last year? I take relevant notes throughout our conversations and I make sure the kids can see what I am writing down, I don’t want them to have to worry about what I may be recording. There are often follow up questions but I also want to be cognizant of wait time and the delicate nature at times of reading and how kids feel about themselves as readers.
Then we discuss their progress, how is it going? How is the book working for them? How is reading outside of English going? We also discuss what is hard about reading, no surprise, even my most adapt readers have challenges. Finally, I ask them if there are things I can do to support them right now better as we get to know each other. Many don’t have ideas right now but I like the openended question in case they do.
As we wind down, I ask them a few more questions. What is their favorite color? What is their favorite treat? And what do they do well? This information is used throughout the year as I celebrate them. It also gives me a peak into where they see themselves right now, many kids tell me they don’t do many things well, and so I always try to help them see great things about themselves.
I thank them for their time at the end. Thank them for investing in our class and allowing me this time with them and that I look forward to helping them grow this year.
The next time I meet with them, there are less questions so the conference goes quicker. Then it starts with, ‘What are you working on as a reader?” as you can see from the note-taking sheet and then evolves from there.
A simple way to start but one that sets us up together to work on reading, to maybe better their experiences in reading, to make it matter beyond the work, the pages, the labor that it is for some. I am so grateful for these kids and the conversations we get to have.
I’ve been thinking about the hurry. The rush to get into habits. To get kids reading. To get kids writing. To not waste a moment of instructional time so that we can get to the real work. I see it surround us, this pressure to get moving, to get going as quickly as we can so we don’t lose time. So we don’t miss our chance for cramming as much as we can into a year. After all, we only get them for so long and the tests will tell us whether we did enough.
It plays out a lot when we meet kids who don’t like reading. Who either proclaim it loudly, or whose behaviors clue us in. The aimless browsing, the grab-and-go when it comes to book selection. The kids who go with the motions at times but you can tell that the book they are currently reading is not one that is going to make it home. Who look at us wide-eyed or with a grin when we tell they we hope they will read over the weekend.
We rush them with book recommendations. Have you tried this one or this one? We tell them they just haven’t found the right book yet and then we hand them a stack hoping that in that stack will be that right book. You won’t know until you start reading, so read.
And I get it, I do it too, after all, the year looms and we have so much work to do. Yet, to quote Taylor Swift, I feel we need to calm down. To take these moments, these aimless wanderings, these negative reading relationships, and ask more questions. Sit in silence and let kids think. If a child can’t answer why they hate reading beyond that they just do, then they haven’t been given an opportunity to fully think about their relationship with reading. They haven’t been given a moment to recognize that their path with reading has been filled with choices, both their own and others, that have now brought them to this point in time where they feel that they are not readers. That reading has no value. That reading is not something they need. Nor something they feel they can do.
So when we hand them another book without conversation beyond “What types of books do you like?” Without seeing the child and giving them a chance to reflect, we are not changing habits long-term. We are not changing lives long-term. Sure, they may love that book – hooray – but what happens when the book is done? Have they really changed their relationship with reading or was it just a fluke?
So before we rush to our piles of recommended books, we slow down. Yes, we surround them with incredible books, people who love to read, we give them time to read, we give them the space to read, the air to read, and then we talk. (This should be a right not a privilege of all kids). We reflect. We give kids the opportunity, the expectations, to know themselves as readers so that we, the adults that surround them, can invest in long-term change.
I am not teaching kids to just like reading this year. I am trying to teach kids to find value, inherent value, in the act of reading itself. While books and texts are the tools, the real work starts with the recongition of one’s own journey and subsequent relationship to reading and how it impacts the child that stands before us.
It takes time. It takes patience. It takes careful planning. And it takes us realizing that being a reader is not just something we want kids to experience in the brief time they are with us, but instead be a part of their being that exists without us after the year is over. That doesn’t just start with a book. That book needs to be wrapped up in reflection, in time, and in conversation. Then changes may happen.